Yesterday, I swam the English Channel.
When I woke up and realized what took place the day before it felt so surreal.
Then I realized that my shoulders hurt if not as bad then worse than the day before. As I started to move my body it started feeling very real.
It started as a great day for a swim. I jumped in the water at 4:15 London time and labored on for 10 hours and 34 minutes until I landed on the beach right next to Cap Gris Nez (the shortest point). It was dark at the start, and they had to attach a light stick to the butt of my suit before I got in. My mother and Clara slathered my body in sunscreen and grease (purchased at the Boots Pharmacy in Dover) and Keith, the Channel Swimming Association Observer, took a few photos of the “getting ready” including one of me with the coveted Hilltopper red towel. There were three other channel swimmers starting at the same time and place and I waved vigorously to one of them and yelled “WE’RE NUTS!!” Later I learned that of the four CSA swimmers, two were pulled from the water. I was the last one in so I saw the other three start their swim. When I was ready I jumped from the boat and swam to short a couple of hundred yards up onto the pebbly shore just outside of Dover. The pebbles were hard to walk on and I had a hard time getting “one half pace” away from the water to make it a legal start. I started to fall, but then I realized that my observer needed to see the light stick on my butt or he would start time before I was ready. I struggled to point my rear in their direction, collected myself, took a deep breath, then turned around to face the channel and waved my arms to signal I was ready. Then the whistle blew and it all started, and after that, I never looked back toward England.
When I got in the water felt pretty good and I started off fairly easy, trying not to strong arm the channel into submission too early. That was for later. I had no problem swimming in the dark (I think that the night swim helped) and it didn’t take long until I caught up with the boat and we were on our way. In my head I was singing any song I could think of that had to do with warmth or sunshine. One of my biggest concerns going into the swim was the night swimming portion, just because warmth-wise the sun makes a big difference. It ended up being a non issue and I stayed fairly warm even though the sun hid behind the clouds most of the day.
My feeding schedule was set at every 30 minutes. The first feeding was a high-calorie juice drink, and I tried to keep those stops under a minute. The second was a sports gel pack with some liquid (started out water, but my crew switched to juice later on to increase my caloric intake) and these took a little longer, but still less than 2 minutes. One of the most frequently asked questions is can you stop? The answer is yes and no. At any time you are allowed to stop swimming, but you cannot touch the boat for even a second. If you stop, you have to tread water. So that’s what I did, tread water until I sucked down my gel or my liquid, as fast as I could so that I could avoid running up the time or losing too much heat. One good thing about the feeding schedule was that it allowed me to track my time in the water. Juice, 30 minutes. Gel, 1 hour. Juice, 1 hour 30 minutes and so on. Another good thing is that it worked! I never once felt exhausted or out of energy. Halfway through the swim I started to understand the people who turn around for a double crossing. I definitely had the energy for it.
At the beginning of the swim I felt strong and fast. The water conditions were pretty smooth and the time seemed to go by quickly. For the majority of my swim I was in good spirits, keeping fairly warm (I shivered most of the swim, but no uncontrollable shivering, although my jaw was sore at the end from the clenching) and feeling good. In fact I will have to report that not too much happened for the first 7 hours! After the swim I got to see Keith’s report and the most eventful things in the report was that at one point, my father fell asleep (like I said, we started early in the morning, and it was hard to sleep with the nerves) and Clara visited the bathroom three times before anyone else on the boat did. There was once when I swam through a patch of jellyfish, the only ones I saw the entire swim. The first few were a couple of feet below me, but then I felt a sharp stinging sensation in my rear. I was reminded of the scene from Forrest Gump when a bullet ricochet into his rear and he yells out “something bit me in the butt!” So I yelled out “a jellyfish just stung me in the butt!” In an area of about 50 yds I saw maybe 20-30 jellyfish, and I think I was stung a second time in the legs, but my grease was so thick on my legs that it just felt like an itch. By the way, feeling itchy is abnormal. In 60 degree water nothing itches.
Sometime in the first seven hours I started to feel some pain in my elbows. To save my elbows, I changed my stroke a little bit which put more pressure on my shoulders. By the time the 7 ½ hour mark rolled around, I was feeling some significant pain in my shoulders. It was around this time that I started really looking to try to find France. Oh yeah, I broke that rule. I looked for France. Visibility was really low and I couldn’t see it, and I felt like I just HAD to be close. After that the swim was a struggle. I have been fortunate throughout my swimming career to have minimal shoulder problems, with the most severe being a slight overuse that goes away with rest. Therefore I was unprepared for the excruciating pain my shoulders would put me through for the next 3 hours.
When I started asking the crew where this “France” place was, they just ignored my questions and looked quite worried that I was asking them. Apparently it is protocol not to tell the swimmer how far away they are, especially since the tides can change and negate any progress the swimmer would be making. In his report Keith marked every comment, as an observer is told to do, in order to monitor the mental well-being of the swimmer. I had no intention of getting out, I simply wanted to know how easy or hard I should be swimming. Luckily, I just assumed I was close and kept my stroke rate up, which held very steady throughout the swim at an average of 68-70 strokes per minute. I thought I was “close” for a good 3 hours.
Towards the end I could think of nothing but my shoulder pain and getting to France. I first saw the coast at around 8 hours. The Indian swimmers were right, the coast never seems to get closer. It wasn’t until I could see people on the beach that I knew I was really getting close. Even though I could see it, I wasn’t really sure I could push through the pain much longer. Then I kept thinking about all of my sponsors, the proud t-shirt sporters, the people who sent me encouraging messages, my family, my husband, and I knew that I couldn’t stop. I was doing a sort of “swimmer limp” in which I pulled mostly on my right “better” shoulder. I stopped often. I cried out in pain. I didn’t know this at the time, but my mother was pleading with my crew to pull me out. No one asked me if I wanted to get out. My answer if they had would have been no. No way was I going to be the one who trained that hard and came that far to stop when they could see people on the beach. Once we got too close to shore for the boat to follow any longer, Fred jumped in the dinghy to row with me (he was surprisingly fast) and Clara hopped in to pace me to the finish. I must admit that it really helped to have Clara next to me, because she was going the same pace as me and made me feel as though maybe I wasn’t going as slow as I thought. Later I learned that she was barely pulling in order to keep the same arm speed as me and make me feel better about myself.
When I could feel the sand in my fingers I stood up out of the water. Usually I would swim a little further before standing up, but I would have done anything at that moment to be able to stop using my shoulders. I started running up out of the water, but scattered throughout were large slippery rocks that I slipped on and fell a couple of times. It was a public beach, so happy vacationers were staring at this swollen sea creature that arose from the water covered in thick white grease and groaning in pain. Once I got out of the water I yelled to Clara “THAT WAS THE HARDEST THING I’VE EVER DONE IN MY LIFE.” And “I CAN’T IMAGINE ANYTHING MORE PAINFUL!” I threw my body on the beach and sat there for a couple of minutes. One lady came up and asked me if I just swam the Channel. I don’t remember what I said if anything at all. I do remember Clara talking to her for me. I looked down and realized that my foot was bleeding from the falls. Later I realized I had also cut my hip. The last hour I had thought I had something in my throat and I was trying to cough it up. Later I realized that it was just the little hangy-ball thing in the back of my throat that had swollen up because of all the salt water exposure. I climbed into the dinghy and spent the boat ride back scraping the grease off of my body. When we arrived there were two camping mats laid out on the deck with towels on top of them. I laid down on my stomach and stayed there with towels, raincoats, and blankets on top of me. I probably shivered for about 15 minutes, but it wasn’t severe. I fell asleep. I woke up a few minutes later and people were talking to me. My father was offering me water. My mouth and throat was too swollen to swallow. Keith asked me if I knew who he was. I thought about it for a second and answered correctly. Then I told him that he was lucky, because I’m really bad with names. I talked to my husband briefly on the phone. I laid there on my stomach for a good hour and a half. I finally got up because my ribcage was starting to get sore. Once I got up, I started feeling better. I sat in the cabin with Fred the pilot until we got back to England, another 2 ½ hours later. I wasn’t cold and ignored people’s requests to put on clothing, stating I didn’t want to get grease on them. I started eyeing a bag of potato chips, but decided against it because of my already swollen throat. I talked to Fred about various things, including monkfish, and we set a time to meet so that I could pick up my charted course on a nautical map. Keith came in the cabin and showed me his report and proclaimed me a “proper channel swimmer.” Once we got back to shore it was almost anti-climatic. I took a quick picture with my crew and walked back to the hotel. I showered, ate, and then went to sleep. When I woke up in the morning at 7 am, it all felt surreal. Then my day went on business as usual, even though my arms were unusable. Nothing else hurts, save my hip from the fall.
I asked the guy at the front desk today, what there was to do around here, and he told me “that the sandy beach was very nice; maybe you should check that out.” Yeah right.
*More Pictures to follow when I receive them from Keith, the official observer.
My sign made the trip across the big pond.
Sunrise on the Channel
Tankers have the right away, I was expected to swim around them.
I see London, I see FRANCE!
Clara and I going in for the finish.
My Parents Celebrate the Finish
The Dinghy bringing the swollen hideous me back to the boat.
Resting after the swim
Me and the Crew Left to Right: Keith Jeffers (Observer), Me, Fred Mardle (Pilot), and Russel ? (First Mate)